In civics or business or life, everything starts with money.
If you have none, zero is still a number, and you work with it. When it’s roughly $85 million over 12 months, that’s a different number. When it’s $85 million, but you want to spend $100 million, then you have even more challenges.
Tuesday night the mayor of Niagara Falls presented a budget he will not preside over, to five council members who may not all be in office to manage it and, to the best of our knowledge, without any input from the three people who may become mayor on Jan. 1.
That’s not a situation unique to Niagara Falls - but it is a civics reality. The plan is balanced by including the yet-to-be-approved garbage tax and the state governments promise to float up to $12 million in assistance while the city continues to wait for uncollected casino revenue.
Mayor Paul Dyster proposes and the council disposes, as Vince Anello likes to say. The budget now sits with five city council members who must agree, disagree or modify in some way.
When money is at stake, harmony is not, which is OK. We’re supposed to have diversity of thought on how to manage the city. Out of difficulty comes opportunity. Whether that leads to a city of strength or a city in decay is what the debate is about. Fortunes are always rising and falling in America as Hawthorne famously said, and it’s the same with cities. Everyone involved passionately believes they have the best interests of the city at heart. Game on.
With the 12th consecutive spending plan presented by the mayor you’d expect consistency, and that’s about what happened. A version of fiscal restraint with 13 job cuts, creation of a brand new tax stream, an increase on business taxes to offset a decrease to homeowner taxes and a reliance on the state to cover what has been a reliance on casino revenue to pay everyday expenses. After all the drama, this thing balances.
The difference of opinion appears to start with Councilman Chris Voccio.
"We can’t continue to live beyond our means," Voccio said, loud and often. "We have a proposed new garbage tax which is estimated to cost each homeowner about $220 a year. While we’re cutting homeowner property taxes slightly - but creating that new tax more than offsets any cut - we’re increasing business taxes, and we’re still far too dependent on casino revenue to balance yearly expenses."
Love him or hate him for bringing this up - and civics is a passionate business - we need this level of discourse and we need this diversity of economic thought. The system works when people speak their mind.
So is it time for the ghost of Ronald Reagan to breathe on the city budget process?
"More efficient management of what we have could help lower expenses, but this large of a deficit can only be eclipsed by a major restructuring of government," Voccio said.
While the mayor proposed laying off 13 people, Voccio says that doesn’t even come close to what’s needed to permanently change the direction of spending in order to live within our means.
"Thirteen layoffs doesn’t solve our fiscal problem. The threat of 60 layoffs doesn’t solve our fiscal problem. To effect lasting change, the number needs to be much larger," Voccio said.
With about 550 city employees? Is permanently laying off 25% of the workforce even possible? This is why civics is important. It may be possible and practical, it may be impossible. But considering all options during a debate is what this is about.
A budget is revenue and expenses. Yet most of what we talk about is expenses. Cut police and fire; cut public works employees. In fact, Voccio has floated an idea to create an auxiliary police force made up of retired police or military, paid in the neighborhood of $15/hour and no benefits, who would handle things like parking tickets or escorting prisoners to court.
"If we can get the union leadership to step forward in an effort to help save the city, if they voluntarily accept meaningful sacrifice, we can get through this," Voccio said. "We need to drastically reduce the amount of overtime within the police force."
A mix of union police and non-union police is radical enough, but budget changes are usually tradeoffs. You get something by giving something. The carrot to the police union?
"The city has nothing to offer in return," Voccio said. "We simply can’t afford to trade sacrifices for promises of gifts in the future. That’s tough medicine which you might agree with or not agree with but, again, someone has to propose change."
Voccio, a Republican, is also banking on their being a Republican majority on the city council next year and pursuing these plans with the power which comes with having the majority of votes on the council, and possibly a new, more conservative mayor.
"I believe the next council will have a Republican majority," Voccio said. "Kenny Tompkins is a Republican and although he’s up for election this year, I think he wins. Then there is one vacant seat and Republicans have a very good shot at winning that. With myself, that makes a 3-2 Republican majority moving forward. We can then enact some of these changes in the coming years."
Still, he’s realistic about this years challenge.
‘I’m grateful that the governor has offered to cover our casino losses. That provides flexibility of debate and takes us away from the brink of disaster," Voccio said.
Voccio hasn’t presented an alternative budget detailing $15 million in budget cuts. That type of detail is difficult for part-time council members with no professional budget staff of their own. For now, he just has to go with his gut - and what voters are telling him when he knocks on doors.
"Even though I’m not up for election this year, I’m going door-to-door," he said. "I stand by all my statements, but they’re really restatements of people I talk to everyday. People are tired of what’s been going on. They want significant change."
The Civics takeaway: do what you can to continue city services or use the Seneca dispute to reimagine how society operates. Change isn’t easy, but debate isn’t hard. Stay sharp, pay attention. Actions have consequences.
The Civics Project is an organization founded to further the education of the public to their civic responsibilities. For further information or to become involved visit www.thecivicsproject.org. Mr. Christy can be reached via email at email@example.com.